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Escalation of Water Conflict: Iran and Afghanistan at the Brink

Rising tensions between Iran and Afghanistan, sparked by territorial and water disputes, are at a critical juncture following a border incident resulting in deaths on both sides. While armed conflict seems unlikely due to the two nations’ relative military strength and political instability, the water scarcity problem and the possible intervention of external actors like China underscore the necessity for diplomatic dialogue.

On May 27, 2023, a volatile situation erupted along the Iran-Afghanistan border, leading to the unfortunate deaths of two Iranian border guards and one Taliban fighter. This incident, near a border post, drastically intensified the already burgeoning tensions between these two nations. Following contentious border incidents, both sides voiced solid and bitter accusations. However, several experts have interpreted this ongoing discord’s root cause as territorial and water disputes. The issue of water scarcity has steadily morphed into a significant challenge for Iran, causing friction with its neighboring countries. The severe water scarcity problems increasingly exacerbate this challenge with neighbors.

Water Scarcity Drives Tension

As of 2023, 270 cities and towns in Iran suffer from acute water shortage as water levels at dams have dropped to critically low levels. Inevitably, the lack of fresh water resulted in a dramatic increase in water subscription prices across the country, triggering harsh debates. Moreover, water reservoirs feeding cities are empty due to drought over the last three years. These water shortages have also damaged Tehran’s relations with its immediate neighbors, namely Turkey and Iraq, over transboundary water management. Decades of chaotic water management by the Iranian authorities, including poorly planned dam building and diverted water resources for heavy industries like steel manufacturing, stirred violent protests across Iran in 2021, which faced a brutal police crackdown.

Given the context, the rise in armed conflicts involving the Taliban regime in Afghanistan was foreseeable. The tensions were further exacerbated when Iran charged the Taliban-led Afghan government with impeding the flow of the Helmand River into the marshlands bordering Iran. Despite not officially recognizing the Taliban regime since its ascent to power in 2021, Tehran has maintained a dialogical relationship with the Taliban, supporting its cause against the U.S. and NATO forces stationed in Afghanistan long before its rise to power. Notably, the assassination of the Taliban’s former leader Mullah Mansoor on the main highway leading from the Iranian border in 2016 shined a light on the movement’s relationship with Tehran. Mullah Mansoor’s alleged meetings in Iran proved the earlier speculations that Tehran provided weapons, cash, and sanctuary to the Taliban amid their fight against the U.S. and NATO forces.

Additionally, Iran’s practical engagement with the Taliban has been primarily motivated by various fundamental interests, including the looming threats posed by the emergence of the Islamic State between 2014 and 2015. As a result, Iran’s recent attempts at reconciliation with the Taliban have been predominantly driven by anti-U.S. sentiments, though this hasn’t entirely erased the ideological disparities between them. Iran with its Shi’a Islamist ideology provided substantial support to Hazaras, an ethnic Shia population of Afghanistan, while the Taliban embraced an ultraconservative form of Sunni Islamism.

In pressing its claims related to water rights and leveling accusations, Tehran cites the 1973 treaty signed between Iran and Afghanistan, which details the shared usage of the Helmand River that traverses the border. According to the treaty, Afghanistan must yearly deliver 850 million cubic meters of water from the Helmand River to Iran. Moreover, the 1973 agreement follows those recommendations to supply Iran with an average of 22 million cubic meters, and includes an additional 4 million cubic meters for “goodwill and brotherly relations”. Consequently, Iran insists that a special commission is allowed to inspect the water reservoirs in Afghanistan. The agreement entailed the establishing of a joint commission between the two states to conduct annual inspections ensuring that each state comply with the requirements of the deal. However, the Taliban regime has thus far dismissed this request.

Looming Conflict?

Considering the current diplomatic and armed standoff between Tehran and Kabul over water resources, with both sides amassing additional troops, a broader border clash could erupt. Potential border clashes between the Taliban and Iran alongside the latter’s problematic Sistan-Baluchistan province may provoke a new round of protests similar to that occurred in September 2022. The ethnic Baloch groups continue to gather in the streets to protest the political system despite a brutal clampdown in one of Iran’s poorest provinces.

While the Taliban’s capacity and likelihood to engage in conventional warfare with the notably more seasoned Iranian Armed Forces appear limited, the prospect of them utilizing advanced Western-made military equipment left behind by the U.S. and NATO allies during their withdrawal from Afghanistan presents a potential cause for concern for the Iranian regime. Further, the Taliban’s extensive experience in unconventional warfare methodologies could exacerbate these anxieties. Indeed, unconventional warfare tactics by militias against neighboring countries have demonstrated their disruptive power and ability to inflict substantial damage on opposing forces, as evidenced by the actions of Yemen’s Houthi rebels against Saudi Arabia.

Notwithstanding the mounting tensions, it is unlikely that an armed standoff between Tehran and the Taliban will go beyond the local border clashes. Taliban authorities know that they do not maintain superiority over Iran’s army despite being armed with $7 billion in U.S.-made weaponry. For Iran, however, engaging in a costly war with the Taliban at its immediate borders at a time of political instability and ongoing confrontation with the West cannot yield any positive results.

Therefore, the likeliest scenario is that both sides will maintain dialogue to solve the water problem. Otherwise, a new conflict between the two neighbors in a fragile border area would only generate a refugee crisis and security gap. The Taliban’s rule over Afghanistan is still unstable as some radical groups oppose the Taliban’s rule. In this regard, the Taliban regime would be unable to address internal instability should a large-scale border conflict with Iran erupt. On the other hand, border tensions may attract external actors, like China, to interfere in the dispute as an acceptable mediator for both sides, offering a superior diplomatic alternative to the Western powers.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Issue: Geopolitics
Country: Iran

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Fuad Shahbazov is a policy analyst covering regional security issues in the South Caucasus. He is a former research fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies of Azerbaijan and a former senior analyst at the Center for Strategic Communications, also in Azerbaijan. He has been a visiting scholar at the Daniel Morgan School of National Security in Washington, DC. Currently, he is undertaking an MSc in defense, development and diplomacy at Durham University, UK. He tweets at: @fuadshahbazov.


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